The Fall of Thatcher - the Brighton Bomb
In 1984 something happened which terribly altered the lives of several politicians. The Brighton bomb killed five people. Among them Roberta Wakeham, whose political crime was to be married to cabinet minister John.
He himself somehow survived despite falling four stories thanks to the fortuitous way the rubble tumbled. A conversation initiated by an interest in the political drama of the fall of Margaret Thatcher shifts to something far more profound – but also connected.
Wakeham was trapped for seven hours, sustained by rescue workers who kept him conscious by discussing, among other things, his national service number. One of them was to die a year later – but only after Wakeham had visited his death bed in a moving act of reciprocation.
During his recovery Wakeham’s family was looked after with extraordinary care by his special adviser, Alison, who was to become his wife. Margaret Thatcher too was extremely solicitous, summoning doctors to Chequers for an update after the patient had made a drug induced, confused phone call to Downing St.
The events bought Thatcher and Wakeham closer together – because his second wife had previously worked for the Iron Lady. The pair were close – but Alison Wakeham has honoured a pledge never to talk about Thatcher to the press.
So these were two politicians linked by friendship, family and trauma. The bomb had of course been aimed at the Prime Minister, not Roberta Wakeham. So who else would she turn to when suddenly faced with the prospect of losing power in November 1990 ? Wakeham was summoned to save the day.
And as the political fixer of his generation – a former chief whip and leader of the house who spent much of his career running between squabbling colleagues - he was the ideal candidate. It says much of his skills that he performed a similar role for John Major, staying on fine terms with him, Thatcher and even the man who wanted their job, Michael Heseltine.
So there was no better candidate to guide her home. Except he was not a magician. Dispatched to rally the troops, he almost immediately discovered they were in open revolt. And the virus of rebellion had spread well beyond troublesome backbenchers and deep into the ministerial benches.
Faced with this quickly gathered intelligence – which somehow the previous campaign manager Peter Morrison had missed – he felt it was his duty to somehow convey the situation to this Prime Minister. He proposed she ask her cabinet one by one over what she should do. Face to face contact would allow them to be honest – and he instructed cabinet ministers to present an unvarnished assessment. They duly did, and she learnt the game was up.
Some have seen these actions as those of a courtier plotting to force out the Queen. And Thatcher loyalists have criticised the decision to see the cabinet one by one, claiming it denied her the opportunity to deliver a St Crispin’s day style call to arms.
Wakeham dismisses the suggestion completely, blaming the interpretation on a liquid lunch at the Garrick between Ken Clark and the late journalist Alan Watkins. He points out he’d been up to his eyes in privatisation of electricity. Amazingly, in a pre-social media world, he didn’t really know what was going viz-a-viz the struggle for Downing St until the day Thatcher sent out her SOS. He was, he says, simply trying to find out what was going on and to make sure the PM knew the numbers.
Given their connections, it’s hard to imagine him engaging in a clandestine operation to betray a good friend. And given his practical non-ideological approach to politics, his find out-the-facts reaction to the crisis is credible. This is a man who had seen what his profession could really cost. It makes the likelihood of him moving chess pieces in a grubby power struggle hard to credit.
Reflecting on Brighton in his House of Lords office – which he believes has the world’s first flush toilet installed by Disraeli to accommodate the needs of Queen Victoria - he describes how he always tries to “feel sorry” for the men who devastated his family. “They are sick men,” he adds in a tone sympathy rather than bitterness. No wonder the MP Peter Walker called him the nicest man in politics.